Matthews schools for Matthews kids: Town pride or race prejudice?

CMS board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, Matthews Mayor Pro Tem John Higdon, Mayor Paul Bailey, CMS board chair Mary McCray and CMS vice chair Rhonda Cheek (left-right) at Tuesday’s joint meeting of the two boards.
CMS board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, Matthews Mayor Pro Tem John Higdon, Mayor Paul Bailey, CMS board chair Mary McCray and CMS vice chair Rhonda Cheek (left-right) at Tuesday’s joint meeting of the two boards.

Despite talk of a nuclear option and holding guns to each other’s heads, leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the town of Matthews said a Tuesday night meeting started building trust between the two bodies.

The meeting was a bit like a counseling session for a couple on the brink of divorce. The force pushing them to talk is a bill introduced by state Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, that would allow suburban Matthews and Mint Hill to create their own charter schools.

CMS leaders say that bill, which would let the town boards govern schools, use tax money to support them and give residents priority for admission, could create “huge, earth-shaking change in North Carolina,” in the words of board member Elyse Dashew. They’ve spent months trying to persuade state lawmakers and Charlotte business and civic leaders that Brawley’s bill could undermine public education for hundreds of thousands of students.

Town leaders said the bill provides an escape hatch if CMS refuses to provide what matters most to residents: The chance for Matthews children to attend schools in Matthews.

“They’re very proud of their town. They don’t want to go to school in Charlotte,” said Mayor Pro Tem John Higdon.

“We want our children close to home,” agreed town commissioner Chris Melton.

Matthews officials complained about crowded schools that spill over into trailers and create traffic jams. They said Charlotte-based administrators are sometimes unresponsive to suburban concerns.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox garnered some praise when he announced that he’s restructuring his top staff and will locate an administrative office in the Matthews area. Kondra Rattley, a former Garinger High principal who has supervised groups of CMS schools since 2013, will head a new southeast regional cluster.

But the cloud hanging over everything was the fear that CMS might reassign Matthews students to Charlotte schools – and vice versa – to create racial and economic diversity. That tension dates back decades and intensified during a recent student assignment review. The school board voted to preserve the neighborhood-based schools that have been in place since 2002, even redrawing some boundaries to include more Matthews homes in Matthews school zones.

Town leaders said they’re pleased, but they and their constituents feel like CMS assignment policies are in constant flux.

And Town Commissioner Jeff Miller bristled when facilitator Cyndee Patterson opened the talks by outlining school and community demographics, asking if her report was a sign of CMS “social engineering.”

Patterson noted that the town of Matthews has “about 18 percent diversity.” That is, it’s about 82 percent white. In CMS 29 percent of students are white.

Patterson said 5,300 school-age children live in Matthews and about half of them attend CMS schools within the town limits. The rest attend other CMS schools, private schools or charter schools. Meanwhile, almost 3,200 students from outside the town attend the CMS schools in Matthews, and just under half of all students in the Matthews schools are white.

“Are you OK with Charlotte kids coming into Matthews schools?” asked school board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart. Several Matthews officials said that’s not a problem.

In an exchange with town commissioner Kress Query, the school board’s Dashew noted that creating separate schools for Matthews residents “would deepen segregation.”

“Would that be a concern?” Dashew asked.

“No,” Query said. “I think children ought to go to their local schools.”

Query insisted that as long as local schools are protected, Matthews officials would have no reason to pursue separate charter schools, even if Brawley’s bill gives them that option.

“That’s like holding a gun to someone’s head and saying, ‘Trust me not to use it,’ ” Dashew replied.

School board members and Patterson tried to reassure the town leaders that massive reassignment isn’t practical or desirable, especially if it creates long, costly bus rides.

But the talks come as diversity – and the lack of it – are in the spotlight. Wilcox, who started in July, highlighted the challenges facing black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools in his first major report on the state of CMS, called “Breaking the Link.”

“I think this report does highlight two very uncomfortable truths for our community, and that is that many of our kids are really suffering from the impact of poverty and racism, and to step away from that would be criminal on our part,” Wilcox told the school board after presenting the report last month.

And just last week, a report from the liberal N.C. Justice Center’s Education & Law Project labeled CMS the state’s most segregated school district, and used that data to argue for closing some charter schools.

CMS and Matthews officials didn’t settle their differences Tuesday, but they agreed to keep talking. The school group hopes to persuade Matthews to withdraw its support for Brawley’s charter bill before the General Assembly convenes in May.

Brawley is also responsible for another bill that created a legislative study panel to look at splitting large school districts into smaller ones. That one got less focus Tuesday because it has already passed and the panel has started meeting. Brawley has blamed CMS for both bills, saying he drafted them only because his constituents are so frustrated with the district.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms